Thacher, John Boyd 1847-1909

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THACHER, John Boyd 1847-1909

PERSONAL: Born September 11, 1847, in Ballston Spa, NY; died February 25, 1909; son of George H. and Ursula Jane (Boyd) Thacher; married Emma Treadwell, 1872. Education: Williams College, graduated (cum laude), 1869. Politics: Democrat.

CAREER: Nonfiction writer, biographer politician, and book collector. Entered family manufacturing business, 1869, co-owner beginning 1887; elected twice to New York state senate, 1883-86; mayor of Albany, 1886-87, 1896-97.

MEMBER: Grolier Club.


Address of John Boyd Thacher to the American Exhibition of the World's Columbian Exposition, Delivered at Music Hall, Jackson Park, August 12, 1893 (Chicago, IL), c. 1893.

Charlecote; or, The Trial of William Shakespeare, Dodd, Mead (New York, NY), 1895.

The Continent of America: Its Discovery and Its Baptism, Benjamin (New York, NY), 1896.

Little Speeches by John Boyd Thacher: Being a Collection of a Dozen Short Addresses on Various Topics, Fort Orange (Albany, NY), 1896.

Awards at the World's Columbian Exposition, (Albany, NY), 1898.

Christopher Columbus: His Life, His Work, His Remains, as Revealed by Original Printed and Manuscript Records, Together with an Essay on Peter Martyr of Anghera and Bartolomo de las Casas, the First Historians of America, 3 volumes, Putnam (New York, NY), 1903-1904.

A Short History of the French Revolution Told in Autographs, Exhibited at the Rooms of the Albany Historical Society, March 19, 1904, [Albany, NY], 1904.

Outlines of the French Revolution Told in Autographs, Exhibited at the Lenox Branch of the New York Public Library, March 20, 1905, Weed-Parsons (Albany, NY), 1905.

Contributor to periodicals, including Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada and Bibliographer.

SIDELIGHTS: Representing either a wide range of independent interests or simply an entirely capricious approach to the collection of historical memorabilia, John Boyd Thacher's arbitrary collecting habits led to one of the most notable collecting efforts of the nineteenth century. Including everything from letters to manuscripts, autographs to deeds, authors to musicians, Thacher's personal library of important papers and historical artifacts, viewed among the most respected and envied collections in America, has served historians, scholars and hobbyists for more than a century. For those most interested in American history, Thacher may be best known for his rare and admirable collection of autographs belonging to the signers of the Declaration of Independence. According to Carol Armbruster in Dictionary of Literary Biography, "Thacher developed a set that included a document fully handwritten and signed by Button Gwinnett, the rarest of the signers, and a lease signed by Thomas Lynch, whose signature is almost as rare as Gwinnett's."

As the son of a prosperous manufacturer of car wheels for railroads, Thacher was fortunate to have the means to collect internationally important documents on an expert level. His father, George H. Thacher, furthered his professional achievement as mayor of Albany. In addition, Thacher was a descendent of eminent ancestors on both sides. On his paternal side there was a lineage from distinguished Puritans who arrived in New England in 1635. His maternal ancestry included the founder of the city of Hornell, New York, Judge George Hornells. Thacher married similarly, when in 1872 he pledged a lifetime of devotion to Emma Treadwell, whose great-grandfather had been a member of the Continental Congress as well as one of the last of the Puritan governors of Connecticut. Emma was Thacher's intellectual equal, and they enjoyed and appreciated many of the same interests. They traveled together, spending the majority of their time traversing Europe in search of supplements to their collection.

After his father's death in 1887, Thacher joined forces with his brother and assumed co-ownership of the family's manufacturing business. His financial position and prominent social status enabled him to succeed in local and state politics, as well as gain access to people and places that could further his impressive collection of books and manuscripts. The motivations for his interest were never clearly defined, but his respect for both history and the written word were probably significant influences. In fact, a catalogue written by Thacher in 1905 to accompany an exhibit of some of his collection at the Lenox branch of the New York Public Library lends some insight to his character and interests. As quoted in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Thacher wrote: "The present exhibition of autographs is an attempt to teach the outlines of history, and particularly of the French Revolution, by means of holographic illustration. The writing of a man, it is held, is the most perfect relic he leaves behind him. Something physical, as well as intellectual and moral, belonging to his personality, has gone into the material substance carrying his writing." It was not unusual for the Thachers, for posterity's sake, to lend parts of their collections to exhibits in the United States and abroad.

In addition to his possession of autographs from the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Thacher held numerous important items representing the French Revolution. Armbruster noted a comment made by Walter Benjamin in Collector, who said of Thacher's autographs from the French Revolution, "I do not believe that its equal can be found even in France." Most of Thacher's success regarding this particular genre can be attributed to his timing, as the Revolution's centennial in 1889 rejuvenated worldwide interest in French culture and history. Even today, Thacher's chronologically organized collection on the French Revolution can be visited at the Library of Congress. Among the collection there are autographs belonging to such notable figures such as Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau, Napoleon, Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Thomas Paine and at least twenty-five others. Thacher had intended to write an illustrated history of the French Revolution, but died shortly after he started the project. After his death, his wife deposited his entire collection of items on the Revolution at the Library of Congress. The collection contained 1,581 volumes, 1,600 pieces of autograph material, and an assortment of maps, plans, prints, and unbound periodicals.

Thacher did not miss his opportunity to write an acclaimed historical account from the gatherings of his interest. It was his vast collection of information and materials on Christopher Columbus that led to Thacher's respected biographical work, Christopher Columbus: His Life, His Work, His Remains, as Revealed by Original Printed and Manuscript Records, Together with an Essay on Peter Martyr of Anghera and Bartolom de las Casas, the First Historians of America, a three-volume effort published in 1903 and 1904. Contemporary historians regard this biography as Thacher's magnum opus, as it was constructed with the use of rare and interesting accounts and letters offering insight into Columbus's life, era, and travels. His collection also offers fascinating information to anyone interested in the discovery of America.

Perhaps Thacher is best known for his incunabula holdings. Thacher began purchasing incunabula enthusiastically around 1889. Upon purchasing the book which completed his "500 presses of the fifteenth century" Thacher wrote: "I take it as a good augury that the first book of my incunabula and the one to round out my five hundredth press should have been found in America. It is seldom my collection finds specimens of incunabula already brought to America. Ten years ago it did not seem possible that I should get from one to ten examples of 500 presses of the fifteenth century. No other private collection has so great a number of separate presses." In all, Thacher possessed 840 incunabula in addition to 64 duplicates, which comes to a total of 904 works classified by countries, places, and printers. However, he was not hailed for being exceptionally discriminatory, and so although his collection sounds impressive, it left much to be desired to the expert collector. Since Thacher gathered many of his items sight unseen, the condition of the items was often far from pristine.

Even with his vast assortment of historical artifacts, it was his autograph collection that captured his heart. He proudly stated in 1907 that he had 41,000 pieces in his possession, and that he had employed two librarians to catalogue them in his house. Since he began his collection comparatively early, he was able to secure some impressive letters in fine condition. After his death, the majority of his autograph collection was sold at auction at the Anderson Gallery in New York. The auction began on October 30, 1913 and continued for almost ten years. According to Armbruster, the introduction of the auction catalogue revealed that "the collection of books and letters of historical interest relating to North America from the earliest times to the close of the Civil War, formed by the late Hon. John Boyd Thacher of Albany, has been known for years as one of the greatest collections of this country."



Ashley, Frederick W., Catalogue of the John Boyd Thacher Collection of Incunabula, U.S. Government Printing Office (Washington, DC), 1915.

Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1995.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 187: American Book Collectors and Bibliographers, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.